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November 2 marks the anniversary of the end of my dad’s incredibly short, but wonderfully heroic two-month battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 49 years old when he passed away and he is missed every day. For those who haven’t encountered it, pancreatic cancer is one that is diagnosed without a cure and without much hope, as it is typically found much too late for treatment. On average, a patient who is diagnosed will lose his or her battle with this awful disease in 182 days. Ten years after my dad lost his battle, we know that his family carried a mutation in the BRCAII gene that made our family line much more susceptible to this and other types of cancers, making genetic testing critical to maintaining health.
As October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, followed by November’s Pancreatic Cancer Awareness month, it’s important to highlight that these cancers, which originate in completely different parts of the body and are typically experienced by varying demographics, are linked by their genetics. The same BRCAI and BRCAII genes that are responsible for people like Angelina Jolie’s decision to undergo elective mastectomies and hysterectomies are also linked to pancreatic and prostate cancers.
Regardless of your opinion on elective procedures, the likelihood of contracting breast or ovarian cancers for women with a BRCAI or BRCAII gene is staggering. Those with BRCAI and BRCAII 65 percent chance of contracting breast cancer, compared with 12 percent of the average population. Similarly, as the average population has a 1.3 percent chance of contracting ovarian cancer, it rises to 39 percent in those with a genetic mutation.
Many years after my dad passed away, one of his brothers was diagnosed with breast cancer. As he had an atypical case and the doctor had knowledge of my dad’s cancer, a genetic panel was conducted. Unfortunately, it was found that the root cause was related to a genetic mutation on the BRCAII gene.
As this news shocked our family, across the United States, cousins and uncles and family members found genetic testing centers through their various cancer research locations to see if they too possessed that specific mutated gene location. Utilizing a genetic counselor program through our local cancer center enabled me to understand the potential implications for me and my children, should I have this gene. For weeks after my test, I was nervous and worried about the genes I had passed on to my son.
>> Read more: 5 Truths About Cancer
Three weeks later, my husband and I had a conference call with my genetic counselor, who gave us the good news that I was negative for the mutation and had not carried it to my children. I felt relieved and so thankful that I had pursued this testing path. Unfortunately, fifty percent of my extended family did not have the same news, as many of them were found to have the mutation and are now working with genetic counselors to utilize early detection methods.
If you suspect that you might need genetic testing to determine whether or not you have a predisposition to these cancers due to a prevalence of hormonally based cancers, review these recommendations from the Mayo Clinic. I am thankful that my family members and I chose to find out our predisposition toward these cancers, as each of us is able to choose our healthiest path via more frequent screenings, diet and lifestyle choices, and the evaluation of proactive procedures. Having this knowledge is a gift that each of us gives to each of our families, as we do everything possible to maintain a healthy, long life.